Mansion on the hill, garden in the sky: Lessons learned in estate gardening

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The original Morven estate—with its classic perennial beds and renowned Japanese garden—belongs to the University of Virginia, and is open for tours to locals, students and international visitors. Photo: Jack Looney The original Morven estate—with its classic perennial beds and renowned Japanese garden—belongs to the University of Virginia, and is open for tours to locals, students and international visitors. Photo: Jack Looney

Back in the ’80s, I ran a landscape crew at Albemarle Farm and its later incarnation as John Kluge’s Morven Farm. I kept a well-thumbed, constantly annotated 3×5 spiral notebook with a card for each month’s tasks for the areas we maintained: ornamental displays of shrubs, perennials and annuals; creekside buffers; an allee of willow oaks, a grove of redbuds, magnolia collections; a small nursery with a couple of greenhouses; and a handful of tenant houses.

The page for August reads:

• Herbicide ailanthus (tree of heaven).

• Check for sawfly larvae on conifers and oak caterpillars through September.

• Seed and straw bare areas.

• Spray hemlock with oil for spider mites when goldenrod begins to bloom.

• Spray barberry looper with a brand-name chemical I’ll not repeat here.

• Spray herbicide and pre-emergent on gravel driveways.

My priorities have changed a lot since then. I certainly don’t spray herbicides on driveways anymore and I don’t have to worry about barberry looper, hemlock spider mites or sawfly larvae on the mugo pines because I’m no longer trying to maintain marginal varieties in an inhospitable climate.

It’s too hot and humid for hemlocks to thrive here; barberries cold-shoulder native pollinators, catch winter trash in their thorny bare twigs and invade woodland edges; mugo pines-—don’t get me started. And, although I did use oils and soaps, I was way too much of a nozzle-head when it came to chemical sprays. I don’t do that anymore, either.

Bookended with an earlier stint at Monticello and subsequent adventure as head gardener at Albemarle House at the turn of the century (before Donald Trump bought it), I became irretrievably mired in the elite tradition of plantation/estate gardening, with its intricate Faulknerian histories, attendant staff, budgets, inventories and scheduling.

It spoiled me forever for working in my own garden (though I did my time hoeing the Monticello vegetable beds from east to west, west to east and back again). But what I really want is to walk around and inspect things, make lists and tell other people what to do. Perhaps a little light work in the late afternoon, as Thomas Jefferson was inclined.

Although it ruined my character, estate gardening did expose me to an eccentric array of greenhouses and potting sheds, beginning with the now-defunct seed-sorting shed at Monticello and the tiny 1950s structure tacked on the back of the office at old Morven during Whitney and Anne Stone’s time there. The Kluge era saw the addition of an orchid house (now used for kitchen garden starts) and, at Morven Farms (now part of the Trump empire), two production greenhouses and a conservatory with small waterfalls where I used to fight whitefly and scale.

The original estate of Morven lives on under its latest metamorphosis as a bequest to the University of Virginia, hosting thousands of locals, students and international visitors who enjoy the classic perennial beds and renowned Japanese garden.

John Kluge’s ex-wife Patricia’s thatched roof potting shed on the hill above Albemarle House was the pinnacle of a dream garden. The simple plastered interior with floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with Italian clay pots and a casement window above the sink looking out onto yet more thatched buildings was like a Beatrix Potter illustration.

What I have learned through my exposure to all this special real estate is that the most important garden is the one inside your mind, implemented in the ground as best you can with the resources at hand. However impractical your dreams and whatever the size of your plot or budget, all you really need for a properly run estate is decent soil, running water, a good crew and the right frame of mind.

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